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County tries forcing central dispatch

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

County leaders are putting pressure on Marion’s police department to make central dispatch happen in Grant County.

At a County Council meeting Wednesday, the council refused to grant MPD money from the county E911 fund to pay city dispatcher’s salaries, telling Chief Angela Haley that if she came back to them with a plan for central dispatch, they would grant the funds.

Haley had asked the Council for $451,000 to pay the salaries of seven dispatchers and to cover equipment costs.

The Council saw this request as an opportunity to use “carrots and sticks,” as council member Michael Conner put it, to push the city toward central dispatch, which was one of the top recommendations of the county budget study that was released last week.

The Council moved to approve $78,000 toward the equipment, but withheld the rest of the funds that would have reimbursed MPD for dispatcher’s salaries for a year.

“If we give you the hundred thousand and not the full amount you asked, that’s the way we can say to everyone listening and watching on central dispatch that you will not be funded fully until we get some action on it,” Council member Mike Roorbach said.

Haley doesn’t have the authority to make plans for a county consolidation of dispatch services though, Commissioner Mark Bardsley pointed out.

It’s under Bardsley’s jurisdiction as a county commissioner to reactivate the board that could make this happen, a step he plans to take this summer.

Although Haley said she was open to the conversation about central dispatch, she was also taken aback by the county’s decision to withhold funding.

“I would caution you that public safety is not something to be played with. We’ve got to fund public safety, we’ve got to take care of the people in this county,” Haley told the council.

The salaries of the MPD dispatchers are still covered in the city’s budget, Haley said. MPD was seeking reimbursement for salaries already paid as well as money to pay the dispatchers for the rest of the year.

Historically the E911 funds have been given out equitably between the county’s two public service access points (PSAPs), the dispatch centers that receive 911 calls directly.

Last year, for the first time, over $400,000 in E911 county funds were used to pay for the salaries of Sheriff’s dispatchers.

Residents of Marion pay into the county’s E911 fund through a phone fee, Haley said, so she believes the dispatch that serves Marion residents should be equally entitled to that money.

“We have made tough choices and tough decisions, and when the county was faced with that, they took money out of E911 to support that operation, and I believe we’re entitled to the same thing,” Haley said. “(The E911 fund) is supposed to be used to support the PSAPs and we’re one of them.”

Grant County also has two other dispatch centers, one in Gas City and one at MGH, but those only receive 911 calls that are transferred from MPD or the county dispatch, so they aren’t classified as PSAPs.

The Public Safety Operations Center Policy board, created to facilitate a transition to central dispatch, was last active in 2012. Talks about central dispatch fell apart back then because some departments weren’t on board and the cost of constructing a facility to house the dispatch put the Council off of the idea.

Bardsley said the county has kept the idea on the back burner since then and has been working to make the different dispatch centers more technologically compatible in preparation for a merger one day.

“We’ve been taking quiet steps forward, laying some of the groundwork,” Bardsley said.

When asked if the cost of a new facility could still shut down the idea this time around, Bardsley said one option would be to find a space already owned by the county that could be repurposed.

Using the current county dispatch space for a centralized dispatch is not a feasible option, Bardsley said.

The County Council seemed determined to aggressively pursue the cost-saving recommendations of the commissioner’s study at Wednesday’s meeting.

Several council members noted that the only power they have to implement central dispatch is their control over the budget.

“As a council, we open and close purse strings. If we could say our purse strings for you are closed until you get this done, that’d be great. I just don’t want to single out MPD for that. I’d like that to be across the board,” Conner said.

Council member Shane Middlesworth suggested they might be able to put pressure on the Sheriff’s department by refusing to fill vacancies in the county dispatch until progress is made.

Bardsley maintained that the support for central dispatch is there.

“I think that most everyone - the players that are involved - want this to happen,” Bardsley said.